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Chapter 1 – The Mother of All Storms
Cover page for the popular real life adventures of a 122 year old sailing vessel and her volunteer crew.
Ripping through an ominous sky blacker than the inside of the devil’s back pocket, a searing billion volts of lightning illuminated ragged clouds scudding along not much higher than the ship’s mast. An explosive crash of thunder, so close it was painful, set my ears to ringing. Through half-closed eyes, burning from the constant onslaught of wind-driven salt water, I struggled to maintain our heading on the ancient dimly lit compass.
This was not your common garden-variety storm. The kind that blows a little, rains a lot, and then slinks off to do whatever storms do in their off hours. This was a sailor’s worst nightmare: a full-blown rip roaring Indian Ocean cyclone fully intent on claiming our small wooden vessel and its occupants as sacrifices.
All that stood between us and the depths of eternity were the skill of Vega’s long-departed Norwegian builders and the flagging abilities of one exhausted man.
After seven straight hours of fighting that hell-spawned storm, I was cold, wet, and completely exhausted.
Using both hands, I turned the wheel to meet the next onslaught from a world where chaos and madness ruled. Should I miscalculate, or suffer a single moment of lost concentration, within seconds the boat might whip broadside to those enormous thundering waves. The next breaking wave would overwhelm her in a catastrophic avalanche of white foam, rolling her repeatedly like a rubber ducky trapped in someone’s washing machine, shattering her stout timbers, violently dooming us all to a watery grave.
The rigging howled like a band of banshees chasing the souls of a thousand tormented sailors. Souls long ago lost in the sheer brutality of winds like these.
It was almost impossible to breathe the air that was filled with torrential rain and seawater blown from the tops of passing waves.
The raging wind seemed fully intent on ripping the air from my lungs. Fighting for every gasping water logged breath, no matter which way I turned my head there was flying water. Only 20 meters away, the bow of our 120-year-old vessel was completely lost in a swirling mass of wind, rain, and wildly foaming sea.
With monotonous regularity, precipitous walls of wind tortured water loomed out of the darkness rushing toward the unprotected stern of the Vega. Yet as each seemingly vertical wall of water raced toward her, its top curling over in a seething welter of foam, our brave vessel would lift her stern allowing another raging monster to pass harmlessly beneath her keel.
With each wave, the long anchor warps trailing in a loop from our stern screamed against the mooring bits as they took the full strain. Fighting desperately those thick ropes were all we had to reduce Vega’s mad rush into the next valley of tormented water. Their paltry resistance was all that stood between us and 42 tons of boat surfing madly out of control down the near-vertical waves.
As the boat fought valiantly, lifting her stern to meet each successive wave, she would dig in her forefoot; a motion that unchecked might quickly swing her broadside to the violent seas. Should that happen, the end would be quick and brutal. Once turned broadside, the next breaking wave would roll the boat 360 degrees, an action that would repeat until nothing remained afloat.
With helm and wind creating a precarious balance, our future was at the mercy of one small scrap of storm canvas. Without that sail to provide forward thrust, the boat would quickly become impossible to steer. It can be rather nerve-racking when your entire future depends upon a single scrap of cloth stretched as taut as a plate of steel, its heavy sheet straining rigid as an iron bar against the brutal forces of an Indian Ocean Cyclone.
While out on deck all hell was breaking loose, down below the off watch were all squirreled away in their bunks warm and more or less dry. To avoid being hurled from their bunks, each of the crew was tightly wedged between the hull and the weatherboards. Little did they realize that at least once every 8-10 seconds I was fighting another giant wave intent on our destruction. Squinting and blinking, I tried to read the wind speed gauge, but the numbers were only a blur.
Glancing astern, I could dimly make out one wave much larger than the rest. It reared out of the darkness like some harbinger of doom, its curling vertical face rushing towards us like an unstoppable watery cliff, growing in height and apparent malice as it came.
It was then I noticed a second rogue wave rushing out of the night. A wave that sent shivers racing up and down my spine. Nothing in my years at sea had prepared me for a giant whitecap raging across that storm-ravaged sea at 90 degrees to the prevailing waves.
Frozen in horror, I watched that watery monster rip its way toward where I sat. As it collided with the first giant wave, roaring along its length like a head on collision between two out of control avalanches determined to destroy all in their path, the interaction was explosive. Towering eruptions of white water rocketed skyward; the unbridled violence was beyond imagination.
Converging from completely different directions, those twin monsters were like a manifest curse from the darkest depths of a nightmare. Water tortured beyond endurance exploded upwards, as the sea forced even higher in a frenzy of tormented white water, loomed over our frail wooden boat. Clearly, those two waves would arrive at the same time, the one slamming into us like a huge bloody-minded mallet, while the other played the part of a watery anvil, and not a damned thing in the world I could do about it.
For a split second that seemed like eternity, a gut wrenching fear paralyzed me. No matter which way I turned, one of those monsters would slam directly into the side of our boat rolling her onto her beam-ends and certain destruction. It all happened so fast there was no time to take action.
There was just enough time for me to take a deep breath, before the combined explosive power of those tormented seas erupted from every direction, transforming my world into a swirling white maelstrom of destruction. My hands were numb, trembling from cold and fatigue as I gripped the wheel in desperation. Struggling against impossible forces, I fought to escape being swept overboard.
Something swirling in the water struck me a fierce blow to the head. Slammed hard against the wheel, I felt a sharp stab of pain in my ribs. As I began to lose consciousness, my only thought was, so this is the end. I gripped the wheel as hard as I could, attempting to turn it against the sideways slide I could feel building. Then my world turned black.
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